When I was about thirteen or fourteen I thought being a lifeguard was probably the coolest job on earth.
- They had deep, dark, Bain de Soleil St. Tropez tans;
- They looked awesome in bathing suits;
- They were totally in charge;
- They appeared not to do any work whatsoever;
- They made a staggering $5 per hour; and,
- They could twirl their whistle by the lanyard, around and around their fingers, quite effortlessly (and slightly hypnotically).
Intoxicating combo of cool. I decided to become a lifeguard.
Bad news, though – you had to be sixteen. So I signed up for Junior Lifeguard Training.
Now, I figured my sixth grade stint as a safety patrol put me in a pretty good position to be a lifeguard – no walker had been hit by a car on my watch, although when Valerie Perry decided to rollerskate to school she nearly got mowed down by a frazzled mom in a big, old, honking Chevy station wagon. I, of course, saved Valerie’s life by grabbing her hand at the very last minute and pulling her to safety. [OK, my account may be a little over-dramaticized, but that’s the story we breathlessly told upon arriving at school. Drama is to pre-teens as air is to breathing, as you very well know.]
So you can understand why I was pretty cocky and full of myself as the Junior Lifeguard Training commenced. I had already saved a life, had read the Red Cross book, and even read the Coast Guard manual – hey, you can never know too much – and figured I’d breeze through.
I was on my way to cool.
But I hadn’t counted on the test.
Because there’s always a test.
The Junior Lifeguard test included mock rescues and using your clothing as a flotation device and a written exam.
And treading water for twenty minutes.
Straight. In the deep end. Which meant there was going to be no way to get a little bit of a rest by touching the bottom for just a minute. Constant movement of the body, but total staying-in-one-place.
I think about it now – how in the world did I tread water for twenty minutes? If my memory serves me, I employed simple scissor kicks and wide sweeping arms to keep my head above water. I paced myself. I relaxed.
And I passed.
This treading water memory came to mind this week as two clients shared their current situations. He, after two years of treading water, has finally sold his business and is moving on to the next thing. She’s at the decision point – does she close her struggling consulting practice? Sell it? Take a regular job with a paycheck? She’s surely treading water at the moment.
In his book Transitions, author William Bridges suggests that any transition starts off with an ending, moves into a kind of waiting which he calls “the neutral zone”, and then ends with a new beginning.
Treading water is what’s happening in the neutral zone, and it’s a critical phase that you can’t rush through and out of, try as you might. You’re in the deep end, and you can’t touch bottom.
There’s not much to do while treading water but wait.
Or, is there?
I know that treading water gives you time to find the horizon. It gives you a chance to scan the options. It allows you to take stock and get clear before you start swimming. Swimming in the right direction.
If you find yourself treading water right now, you can stop beating yourself up for not going anywhere.
You don’t need to go anywhere other than where you are. Treading water is part of what you have to do to pass the test.
So wait a little bit. Learn what needs to be learned. Relax. Pace yourself. Hey, when you’re in the middle of it, it’ll feel like you’re churning forever – but when you’re done, you’ll see it’s only been twenty minutes.
You’re so going to pass this test.